Latin America has seen unprecedented growth of digital journalistic enterprises in the past five years. But serious questions about their viability have arisen as many of them only sloppily engage with audiences.

When Daniel Eilemberg, 30 at the time, launched Pajaro Politico (Political Bird) back in 2009, a Twitter account curating content from international news groups and breaking its own news, nobody would have guessed that it would eventually become a political news and aggregation site with more online readers than well-funded sites of established media groups in Mexico.

It did. Animal Politico site, geared on publishing political news, was born in a year. Today, it boasts over one million likes on Facebook and some 1.1 million Twitter followers. The site’s readership exceeds four million unique visitors. Animal Politico is not alone in Latin America’s booming internet news market. Since 2010, the region has seen staggering growth in new digital journalism initiatives.

The Digital Media Deluge

The period between 2010-2014 was particularly fertile for journalistic entrepreneurship in Latin America. Some 73% of the existing online media were launched during this period, according to a recently released study from Factual, a Mexico-based research center. 

The report examines 34 native digital media from 13 countries in Latin America. Analyzing the type of content, the business model and the age of the media, among other things, the report is indeed a pioneering study of its kind. It takes a close look at the media that is shaping the fast-changing digital journalism in the region including Animal Politico, Plaza Publica of Guatemala, El Faro in El Salvador, La Silla Vacia in Colombia and 14yMedio hailing from Cuba.

One other important finding of the survey is the high appetite for investigative journalism among the rising entrepreneur-journalists in the region. More than a third of the media included in the study are investigative journalism projects.

However, the picture is not all that rosy. 

Factual’s findings on digital journalism practices such as interaction in social media or innovation in business models are dispiriting, and particularly so because the report covered only digital native media, meaning journalistic projects that have lived only on the internet. 

Little Social Media Interaction

Factual’s researchers, led by Jordy Melendez, developed a Digital Exploitation Index, an aggregate indicator measuring what its name describes through a set of four individual indicators: responsive design or mobile “friendliness”; presence and interaction in social media; use of maps, data and interactive pieces; and use of transmedia storytelling (which means stories designed for several platforms aimed at engaging audiences).

In other words, Factual wanted to find out how user-friendly the output from digital media is packaged, presented and delivered to their consumers. 

The results were dismal. The average grade scored by all media in the study was 5 out of 10 where 10 is the best. Only four passed the 7-mark, namely Animal Politico, La Silla Vacia, Ojo Publico and Plaza Publica. That is a mere 10% of all the media included in the study.

Findings on social media interaction were equally striking. Only some 6% of the media included in the study interact with their readers in social media every day, and 32% do so occasionally. The remainder, a whopping 62% of them, never interact at all. 

The Business Model: Nobody Thinks About It

Figuring out a successful business model for digital media is not a concern solely for Latin American media. There is no silver bullet for online news media sustainability anywhere in the world. Therefore, it didn’t come as a surprise that the search for long-term sustainability models is the main concern of native digital media in the region, Factual found. 

However, the vast majority of the media canvassed for this report, 85% of them, were in fact launched without any business model in mind, which is baffling, precisely as all of them hint that sustainability is a critical issue. This is even more disconcerting as 20 out of the 34 companies in this survey are for-profit entities.

As of 2016, the majority of digital news media banks on a hybrid business model combining various sources of funding such as ads, subscriptions and international grants, among other sources. Yet, 38% are relying on advertising only. One inspirational case of a diversified funding model is the Salvadorian El Faro, which has ventured as far as online retail. It has created its own online store, which sells books, music and decorations. That adds some more cash to its coffers.

However, that is an exception rather than a rule. To truly monetize their big audiences, more business thinking is urgently needed.

Photo: Animal Politico Facebook